30 May 2010

Paper, Flowers, Rocks & Trinkets

compiled by Teresa Martin Kaiber Memorial Weekend 2010

Paper, flowers, rocks and trinkets all are part of remembering.

Today I visited three cemeteries in northeastern Kentucky. All were full of people tending their loved ones graves. Best of all, I saw older family members talking to the children telling them stories about loved ones so they will also remember.

Some reading this post will recognize portions of this article as threads that I have posted on a social network the past week, as the United States Memorial preparations have gotten under way.

Let me make this clear, I love God's natural flowers. This weekend the cemeteries are beautiful with thousands of flowers gracing loved ones earthly resting place. Because I am a trustee of a cemetery, I sometimes think beyond the immediate emotional moment. Within a few days the artificial flowers will fade, wires will rust and mowers will be damaged when little pieces get caught in the blades. I tend to think about the cost of maintaining the equipment, gravel for roadways, fences that need mending, trash removal and in smaller cemeteries the fact that animals can be seriously injured and even die from the wires if tossed into the fields.

Having said that, placing items, whatever they may be at graveside is a show of respect for those we love. It teaches those small children about love and giving and remembering. It gives the living a sense that they are doing something and sharing something with those that have left us. This is one of the reasons that folks in Eastern Kentucky tend to call it Decoration Day.

Our first official Memorial Day was in 1868 following the Civil War and was actually created because of Southern Ladies honoring Confederate deceased soldiers. A Hymn was published in 1867, Kneel Where Our Loved Ones are Sleeping. The sheet music was published in New Orleans and the top reads "To the ladies of the South who are decorating the graves of the Confederate dead." Memorial Day honors all our American Soldiers. In Eastern Kentucky we honor our military and all our loved ones. It is truly Decoration Day.

Burial rituals and traditions have existed for thousands of years. For some reason, possibly knowing that I have Jewish heritage, I love the tradition of placing a pebble on the tombstone. It is small, natural and will go back to the earth. When I place a stone I feel like I am saying "I am honoring you. I have been here." However, being raised a Christian, I decided I would like to know a little more about why this is a traditional Jewish custom. I found a wonderful article "Question: Why do we place pebbles on grave stones?" by Rabbi Tom Louchheim. The Rabbi gives several theories and practices that led to the tradition of placing the stone. But what struck me in the article was a quote by Louchheim's colleague: "Ritual is a way of expressing our emotions and spiritual needs. We need physical acts to express these things for us, to make them concrete."

Today I expressed my emotions and spiritual needs. I placed pebbles on the graves of my loved ones. When I grew up I did not realize that the street I lived on in Ashland, Kentucky was predominately Jewish. My neighbors were the Josselson family, Polinski's, Stones, Metzlers, and Koros family among others. As I drove around Ashland Cemetery today, I stopped and remembered my childhood, and left a few pebbles for them as well.

When I stopped to visit my great uncles and my great grand parents I smiled as well. Live flowers had been carefully planted and tended by another family member. It flooded me with more memories. When probing for downed tombstones I often find a bit of glass from a fruit jar or a piece of crockery. Older family members told me that they would cut flowers, fill the fruit jar with water, and with trowel in hand dig a small hole so the jar would not topple and place it at the grave. Around Memorial Day the day lilies, roses, daisies and peonies are in full bloom in Eastern Kentucky.

My mother-in-law talked to me about crepe paper flowers. Live cut flowers would droop so quickly. It took hours to create crepe paper flowers. There were even detailed booklets on how to create them. All of them were made with love and with a special person in mind.

Besides multiple colors of crepe that could be purchased at the 5 & 10 cent store, you needed thread, paste and water and some old wire which most farm houses had available. The problem was that the dew would cause the crepe paper dye to run. Rain ruined the creations immediately. By the late 1920's people discovered that you could dip the creations in paraffin wax and they not only looked more realistic, they lasted for a longer period. Plastic flowers soon evolved and in the 1970's new machinery allowed silk flowers [actually polyester] to become the rage.

Over the years I have photographed, repaired and documented thousands of graves in New Jersey, Ohio and Kentucky. There is nothing so frustrating as to find a photograph of a loved ones grave, only to have the valued dates blocked by flowers. I have moved and replaced many flower containers to get a good photograph. I am careful to dust grass clippings from the flowers before replacing them exactly where they were prior to the photograph.

I think the most moving tributes I have seen standing at an Eastern Kentucky graveside are the tiny toy cars, or a small toy soldier. I have seen glass boxes built with memorial items placed inside and marbles embedded in homemade gravestones.

It is a privilege, as a genealogist, to also be the trustee of an active cemetery in Eastern Kentucky. It has been one of the most moving experiences of my life. Yes, it is the 21st century and there is modern equipment. But I have seen graves dug by hand with simply a pick and a shovel in the 21st century in Eastern Kentucky. If you were to ask why, the answer would be simple "to pay respect." There is nothing more moving than to see a whole neighborhood gather to help. This evening I sat and watched car after car climb the gravel hill to pay their respects and place their tributes on loved ones graves.

Family reunions used to be held at the cemetery. Picnic baskets were packed with wonderful foods and wagons filled with tools to clear and clean the cemetery. One lady described Memorial weekend as a child on Clay Jack, Boyd County, Kentucky. She said the wagons were like a parade when the Vanover family went down the road each year to their cemetery. She wished she was a member of that family because they had such a big party.

Today I saw so many visions. Families gathered for pictures at loved ones graves. I saw an elderly gentleman artistically arranging flowers, stepping back to make sure they were placed just so. One tiny boy and his father knelt by a grave while the little boy worked very hard to push the wooden flag into the ground beside a soldier's grave. I placed my peebles and shed a few tears. Then I smiled because I remember.

Sexton Cemetery, Pigeon Roost, Boyd County, Kentucky

The type of ritual item or way we honor our loved ones is a very personal, emotional action. A tiny toy, a giant floral arrangement or a tiny pebble all are saying "I am honoring you. I have been here."

May Memorial Day live in our hearts every day.

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